Sen. John Kerry’s advisers are telling the presidential candidate to steer clear of talking about religion after running afoul of several Catholic bishops and after the campaign’s new director of religious outreach was criticized this week for espousing left-wing causes.
The Rev. Robert Drinan, a Jesuit priest who served in Congress during the 1970s, says he has advised the campaign to clamp down on religious rhetoric and “keep cool on the Communion thing” after four Catholic bishops either barred Mr. Kerry by name from taking Communion in their dioceses or said pro-choice Catholics should be denied the sacrament.
“The mood now is to shut up about it,” said Father Drinan, who teaches at Georgetown University Law Center. He said the Communion debate “is a nonissue” in the Kerry campaign and simply a tool of the Republican Party.
Mr. Kerry’s detractors “are dying for him to say something. But he won’t take them on,” the priest said, adding that he was part of a “kitchen Cabinet” to advise the Kerry campaign on religious matters.
Meanwhile, the Kerry campaign also has sidelined its new religion adviser, closing journalists’ access to Mara Vanderslice and ignoring her advice on how to appeal effectively to religious voters.
“Every time something with religious language got sent up the flagpole, it got sent back down, stripped of religious language,” a Kerry campaign source said of Miss Vanderslice’s ideas on overcoming Mr. Kerry’s secular image.
The campaign source also said former Clinton aides Paul Begala, John Podesta and Mike McCurry have tutored campaign operatives on more aggressively using religion to appeal to voters.
“Why the campaign is not listening to any of them, I don’t know,” the source said. “Conservatives are about 20 years ahead of us on this stuff.”
The campaign began to marginalize Miss Vanderslice when the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights mounted a public campaign against her, saying she spoke at a rally co-sponsored by the homosexual group AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (Act-Up) and should be “working for Fidel Castro.”
Even though she was giving interviews to USA Today earlier this month, Miss Vanderslice would not be talking to the press, said campaign spokeswoman Allison Dobson.
“It is extremely unfortunate and regretful that John Kerry’s political opponents would attack a person of faith in this way,” Ms. Dobson said.
Miss Vanderslice, 29, grew up Unitarian in Boulder, Colo., then attended Earlham College, a Quaker institution in Richmond, Ind.
She joined a college socialist group, majored in peace and global studies, and graduated in 1997. After interning for a year at Sojourners, a liberal evangelical magazine in the District, she joined the Jubilee USA Network, a D.C.-based group that campaigns for Third World debt relief.
What Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League, found especially problematic was Miss Vanderslice’s presence at a violent December 2000 rally in Seattle against the International Monetary Fund and a similar protest in September 2002 in the District against the IMF and the World Bank.
In articles on the protests, the Boston Globe identified her as an organizer and the Denver Post quoted her plans to take part in civil disobedience in order to shut down the IMF meeting in the District.
“What you get here is a profile of a woman on the far left and whose commitment to Christian organizations is connected to the most left-wing groups in the United States,” Mr. Donohue said.
“This choice either suggests an incredible naivete or a very nonchalant attitude” by the Kerry campaign, he said.
The campaign is in “panic mode” because of the attacks, said Amy Sullivan, a specialist on religion and the Democratic Party who gave a galvanizing speech last fall at a Democratic Leadership Council forum in Atlanta called “God, Guns and Guts.”
Plans were, said Miss Sullivan, for the campaign to assemble a “people of faith” page for the Kerry Web site, at which point Miss Vanderslice was to be announced as the contact person.
But with Miss Vanderslice not being allowed near the press, “They have no one in their communications shop who is conversant in religion,” she said.
It was Miss Sullivan’s June 2003 cover story in the Washington Monthly, “Do Democrats Have a Prayer?” that inspired Miss Vanderslice to quit her Jubilee job and go to work for the Howard Dean campaign as its religious outreach coordinator in Iowa.
“I was quickly dubbed the ‘church lady,’ ” Miss Vanderslice wrote in the May issue of Sojourners, “as I tried to convince senior staff that, although many people of faith supported Dean’s positions, his secular image would hurt him in the election.”
Miss Vanderslice was then recommended to the campaign by Maureen Shea, the Clinton administration’s liaison to religious groups from 1997 to 2001.
At first, Miss Vanderslice was given wide latitude to define Mr. Kerry’s positions on spiritual issues and to hire assistants who would reach out to Muslims and black churches, the Kerry campaign source said.
Then her “strategy memo” advising Mr. Kerry on how to shift the press’s emphasis on sexual morality to social justice issues got ignored.
Thus, when Mr. Kerry was asked about the Communion furor Tuesday, he said, “We have a separation of church and state in the United States” and that Catholicism “is not defined by one issue.”
“Maybe the Kerry campaign is learning the wrong lesson from the 1960 presidential campaign,” said Steven Waldman, the founder of the religious Web site Beliefnet.com. “They figured that if [John F.] Kennedy emphasized separation of church and state, that’s the way we will do it, too.
“At the time, the question is whether Kennedy is too influenced by the church. The question now is whether Kerry is influenced too little.”